by Monica McCarty, historical (2007)
Ballantine, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-345-49436-8
Highlander Untamed is a pretty impressive debut from Monica McCarty, I must say, if this is indeed her first published effort and she's not an old hand starting anew under a new pseudonym. I'm impressed, especially, by how the author manages to avoid plunging her characters into the big misunderstanding trap for the most part of the story.
We're in familiar territory - early 1600s Scotland - as the MacLeods and the MacDonalds give each other the finger and a few sword in the gut ever since Rory MacLeod felt that the MacDonalds had insulted his sister as well as his people by humiliating her and returning her back after a botched betrothal. However, King James I had ordered the two clans to put aside their differences. As a result, Rory has to marry Isabel MacDonald whether he likes it or not. He is determined to give the marriage one year before dissolving it. Little does he expect that Isabel is not exactly a poor innocent who is forced by political circumstances to marry an enemy of her people like he initially assumed her to be. Isabel is ordered by her father and her uncle to spy on the MacLeods and discover any useful information that can be used by the MacDonalds to crush the MacLeods in the MacDonalds' plan to gain more lands and power in Scotland. The story doesn't have many external conflicts as it deals mostly with Isabel and Rory slowly falling in love as they try to live together as husband and wife for that one year.
Rory is a decent fellow - while not exactly a sensitive new age gentleman, he nonetheless views Isabel correctly as someone who has nothing to do with his vendetta against her uncle and he intends to treat her well in that one year. He doesn't intend to consummate the marriage no matter how desirable he finds her because he intends to end the marriage after the year is up. Rory is a fair gentleman where it counts for the most part, which makes him an appealing hero without the rest of his warrior/laird persona being sacrificed in the process.
On the other hand, Isabel needs to have the marriage consummated because she needs Rory to be under her spell. She's a pretty lousy spy since she's too emotional but still, Isabel is a pretty level-headed heroine most of the time. While she's a virgin, she's not childishly naïve about sex. She knows what it is and how it's done and she intends to sleep with Rory in the name of duty without wringing her hands like some idiotic martyr in a melodrama of virtues. While on the whole she is an intelligent person who can make good decisions and put two and two together, I am not sure, however, why she feels this need to support her father and uncle. From all accounts, she's desperate to please her cold and distant father while she has no great cause to support her uncle. So why is she going all this distance for her people? Perhaps she feels that she has to do her duty as a MacDonald to her people, I suppose, but it will be nice if Ms McCarty has fleshed out this aspect of Isabel's character. As it is, all I have are fragmented flashbacks here and there to Isabel's past that I don't find particularly illuminating in any way when it comes to explaining Isabel's motivations.
Isabel and Rory treat each other in a refreshingly drama-free manner for the most part, they come off as smart folks who respect each other. This is why for so long Highlander Untamed is a most enjoyable read where I am concerned. Two smart people who respect each other and who are falling in love without doing outrageously stupid things in the process - what's not to love, right?
But as the story progresses, Ms McCarty puts in one too many conflicts in this story. While some of these conflicts are justified, she has the characters behaving in an increasingly out-of-character melodramatic manner to the point that Rory's late story "Oh my god, you lying bitch! Get out of my sight! I hate you!" outburst feels like a last moment contrivance to get one more conflict going in the story. Isabel is calm and rational in that scene, which makes Rory come off as even more out of character in comparison. He's a smart fellow for the most part and he's also a reasonable fellow, so why this last moment drama queen scene? The last few chapters leading to the happily ever after feel too contrived for the sake of drama for my liking.
But that minor quibble aside, I find Highlander Untamed a solid read from start to finish. This book convinces me that I'd be most keen to read more of what this author has to offer so as far as debut efforts go, this one has done its job very well indeed.
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